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Slow-Made Olive Oil

Talk about slow food. Sometimes it sneaks up on you and doesn’t let go.

That’s what happened to Franco Lombardi, the retired civil engineer who’d worked building steel bridges in many of the world’s hot spots — “anywhere there was a war” — and moved 28 times. He bought Pornanino, a rundown farm property in Chianti in the Tuscan hills, one of Italy’s most sought-after and beautiful areas. There, employing the slow, patient method that Italians have used for centuries, they produce top-quality extra virgin olive oil from their own olive groves.

Lombardi, who was born in Milan, and his wife, Lia, hadn’t intended to go into business when they retired 15 years ago — let alone a business conducted according to a 2,500-year-old tradition. They’d thought they’d take it easy, maybe spend a little time growing grapes on the property’s abandoned vineyards and perhaps make wine. “Wine is the big moneymaker,” says Lombardi.

But even just to live there, they had to clean up the land. And as they did, they discovered an old olive grove. They resurrected it, and by the end of the year, they had 50 liters of olive oil, made in the traditional manner, a slower process than the way most olive oil is made today.

Keeping some for their own kitchen, they also gave away bottles to friends, who were so pleased that they came around after the olive harvest the next year to ask for more. The Lombardis were in business.

A scientist tackles slow olive oil

A scientist by training, and a man determined to do things the way he thinks best, Lombardi wanted to produce oil of the finest quality, and that meant the old, slow way, and according to organic principles.

“Everybody was against it,” says Lombardi, 74. “If you want to produce top-quality oil, the cost is very high — twice as much as it would be using modern methods. But once we started to produce the oil, it was interesting.”

He did most of the work himself, watching over the olive crop, harvesting it, taking the olives to a public press, bottling the oil and marketing it, expanding the business by renting trees from neighbors and planting new ones.

And he never considered using contemporary production methods, a more lucrative process that results in a larger quantity of oil, but, to him, an oil of a decidedly lesser quality. How an olive harvest becomes olive oil can be a slow process or a speedier one, depending on how the olives are harvested, and which processing technology is used. So the producer has to make many decisions, among them: Should the olives be harvested by hand or by a mechanical shaker or straddle harvester? Once harvested, should the olives be crushed slowly against a stone wheel, or more quickly by a metallic disc or hammer mill? Should the resultant olive paste be spread out in layers and stacked, allowing the oil to seep through the layers slowly, or stacked and pressed? And so on.

Franco Lombardi has consistently opted for the slower, older more labor-intensive process, which is much more costly for the producer but results in what is generally agreed to be a more pure oil.

These days, it’s hard for the consumer to sort out which process has been used simply by looking at the information on the bottle. By current law, the oil that is produced the Lombardi way is designated as “first cold pressed” (as opposed to just plain cold pressed).

He wasn’t satisfied with using the town olive press either, and in 2002 he bought his own — “The guarantee of a good result was sure,” he says. “Quality is our product.”

The quality has been helped along by a nearby chain of hills that creates a sort of wind tunnel over the property that’s inimical to the Bactrocera oleae, an extremely common olive fly that ordinarily enters the fruit and destroys the crop. A powerful pesticide is the only way to combat it. And Lombardi, who didn’t know about that geographical quirk when they bought Pornanino, is grateful for it.

Slowing down and passing the torch

These days he is slowing down — if you can call giving weekly olive oil seminars eight months of the year, doing lecture tours and turning up at June’s three-day Fancy Food Show in Manhattan to promote their product slowing down.

But, after Lombardi, who would have the commitment to carry on tradition, making olive oil according to those labor-intensive very old ways?

Lombardi and his wife didn’t have to look far. Now their son-in-law, Matteo Boggio-Robutti, 45 — a very 21st-century IT guy who was working in Milan — and his wife (their daughter) Francesca, 43, have chosen to walk that same path.Pornanino olive oil

Living in their own house on the property with two teenage daughters, the couple is learning to run the business. Boggio-Robutti oversees the growing and harvesting processes, a labor-intensive job that involves cutting the grass, pruning 4,000 trees, feeding the soil and supervising a group of laborers he hires every couple of years for intensive soil work. Francesca Lombardi, who learned English when a school program took her to Kansas City, Mo., when she was 16, works part time on accounting and marketing in the office with her father. “I want at least 50 percent of her time,” says Franco Lombardi. “I want to stop.”

Although they met and lived in Milan, the Boggio-Robuttis were not new to the business. “We have always helped during the harvest,” says Francesca Lombardi. “It was a huge family December gathering and a nice one.”

But giving up a 21st-century urban life was something else. Boggio-Robutti had always lived in Milan, and much of his family still does. One of his sisters, also called Francesca, is a professional cook who writes for television, writes the Pornanino newsletter, and tests and photographs its recipes.

Francesca Lombardi’s brother, Stefano, 41, an engineer and builder, and his family have also become seduced by the Tuscan countryside and the family business. Now they live at Pornanino. “He’s an excellent marketing person,” says his sister. “He knows everybody.”

Is Boggio-Robutti sorry he gave up the city for the slow life?

For one thing, it’s hardly slow, though he says it’s definitely less stressful. And he was ready for a change. “I was bored with life there — the pollution, no green, no space,” he says. “We didn’t see our kids growing up healthy there. We had an alternative, so we decided to change our way of life.

“It has been tough,” he says. “I left a regular job, a monthly salary, a pension. But Franco had already done the big part by building the structure of the business. We’ve never reconsidered the decision. I appreciate it more and more.”

Judith Weinraub has won two James Beard Foundation journalism awards. She is a 25-year reporter and editor at the Washington Post, where she wrote about food and politics, as well as arts and culture. Weinraub has also been a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellow. Last year she conducted an oral history project for New York University’s Fales Library, recording the memories of people who have changed the way Americans think about food.

Photos, from top:
Franco Lombardi at Pornanino.
Pornanino olive oil.
Credit: courtesy of Pornanino